By Erin Tomlonson
Heavy beads of dew were clinging to the needles of the pine trees. Their fresh early morning scent cut through the deep earthy tones of the forest floor. The dry needles strewn across the ground crackled under Uday’s bare feet as he ran; shoes would only slow him down. Each breath heaving out of his lungs echoed through the ancient trees. He was free to run as he wished.
Uday traveled deeper into the woods where the air was thick with age and decay. The slender pine trees began to thin out and were replaced by great oaks. These trees had grown closer together than the pines, with more roots erupting along their bases. Uday had to watch his step now, slowing his pace to what a human would normally run. Though sunlight could no longer make it through the masses of wide leaves above Uday, the temperature was steadily rising. Irritating droplets of sweat began inching down his back, chest and face, tickling him as they went.
A deep groan resounded through the forest and the ground rippled as a large tree fell behind Uday. His head whipped around, peering into the slight gloom for any hint that he was no longer alone. Finding none, he continued his run. The groan sounded again and a shadow fell across the ground in front of Uday. While struggling to come to a stop before the massive tree crushed him, a knot of roots sprang out of nowhere and ensnared his feet. He was too close; the shadow of the tree was almost on top of him. The bark of the tree ripped into Uday’s arm as it fell along his body, half an inch from crushing him completely. The force of the great tree knocked him off his feet. Uday let out a groan as he felt roots digging into his back from every angle and blood began to seep from the scratches along his arm. He braced his hands against the tree and tried to dig his feet out. It was no use. They were pinned too tightly under the weight of the great tree.
As the leaves settled back on the ground, a set of long thin fingers appeared just over the trunk. They crept toward Uday until equally scraggly arms appeared behind them. The forearms were twice as long as they should have been, as though they had been stretched. Lithe muscles bulged against the bones until a head, shoulders, and torso came over the line of the trunk. The head was completely round with dark green bulbous eyes taking up half the face. A mouth took up the rest of the twisted visage, filled with rows upon rows of razor teeth. The dark leathery skin around the mouth was dry and cracked open in large splits, oozing blood and pus. The creature scuttled over the trunk with its abnormally long limbs and crouched over Uday. Rank breath hissed between the teeth as eyelids flicked over the slightly glowing eyes.
“Arachide”, Uday said. The creature’s grin widened, forcing the split skin open further and fresh blood to trickle down his chin. He was a Sheegard, one of the black imp-like creatures that infested the forest. Their abilities to manipulate plants drew them to the deep parts of the forest where they could build intricate nests in the tree branches. The Annuns had been driving the Sheegards out of the forests since they could remember, but like a uncontrollable infestation the Sheegards have always survived and made their way back in.
“See how I’ve caught you. I am clever, yes?” He lowered his head over Uday’s scratched arm and inhaled. The Sheegard’s long fingers reached out and caressed Uday’s cuts, wiping up the blood. Raising his fingers to his mouth, Arachide’s long slimy rope of a tongue cleaned his fingers. Uday struggled away in disgust, but the roots still held him tight. “Ah ah ah! No getting away for you. No running off to do naughty killing. There be innocents here.” Arachide said, waving a hand over the roots on the ground around them. The roots glowed slightly, wrenching themselves out of the ground and snaking around Uday’s legs and torso.
“There won’t be any getting away with this, you filthy Sheegard. Trapping me won’t stop my brother Annuns from squashing your pitiful infestation. Even if we were to fail, the humans will fight for us after. They are just as repulsed by you as we Annuns are. This is our land,” Uday said.
“More will be trapped. I protect my home from trespassers. This is our land, too.” Arachide held both hands over the roots around his prisoner’s legs. Those bulbous eyes were gleaming with a sick pleasure as the roots began to squeeze tighter. They dug into Uday’s flesh, bruising wide lines as screams gathered in his throat. They burst forth as the roots squeezed so tight that the bones in Uday’s feet began to break, shattering into the muscles surrounding them. Next, the bones of his lower legs snapped in multiple places. Arachide’s sides were convulsing as his glee at his prisoner’s suffering bubbled over. For a moment, Arachide paused, studying the mangled mass of gelatinous meat that Uday’s legs had now become. The pressure of the roots loosened, but Uday knew getting free was still impossible. “No more running for you now, ehh? Now you just like humans, Uday. I know your tricks. Someday you won’t be able to hide what you are. And you will be just as hated as me.”
“I have them wrapped in my fingers. They will never know that we Annuns aren’t like them. We have fooled them for generations.” Uday’s teeth were clenched against the pain radiating from his legs.
“I knows. What if I tell them, hmmmm? Expose you. Ruin your home like you ruin mine.” He leaned in closer to Uday and grinned, purring deep in his chest.
One of Uday’s hands was only held down with one root so he wiggled it free and socked Arachide in his left eye. “Watch it, you demon,” Uday said.
Arachide flew off Uday hissing and spitting curses out of his teeth. Uday began to grab at the roots around his other arm, trying to break the root’s grip. Arachide scuttled back to Uday, his eyelid swelling closed over his eye. Uday smirked at the bruise forming. “Serves you right.” Arachide continued to spit curses as he manipulated the roots around Uday. They whipped in the air and lifted the Annun, snaking around his body. Uday’s back hit the tree behind him as the roots lashed him against it, twisting around his wrists and ankles. He glared at Arachide.
“I’m ravenous. I think it’s time for a snack,” Arachide said as he leaned in towards Uday and slid a small knife from its sheath at his hip. “What say you? An eye for an eye?”
Just before Arachide reached Uday he stopped and cocked his head to one side. He began to speak in a series of clicks, harsh purrs, and slithering foreign words, pausing every so for the reply. Sheegards had an internal communication system that allowed them to talk over great distances. After a slight debate, Arachide put away his knife. “We founds another Annun. I must help trap him. This one is stronger.”
“He will crush you until you’re pulp. I hope you’re ready to die.”
“I survive. The trespassers die.” He turned as if to leave but stopped, turned back and rushed to Uday so his foul face was centimeters from him. That filthy tongue of his caressed Uday’s neck and face, causing goose bumps to rise along Uday’s spine and over his skull. “Stay put.” With that, he vanished into the treetops, leaving Uday strapped fast to the tree trunk.
Uday struggled against the roots, but they only cut deeper against his mangled legs. Annuns had the ability to heal at over four times the rate of humans; but unless he could get his legs straightened and free, the bones would heal crookedly. Then Arachide would be right, and he would be just like the worst of the humans, pathetic and crippled. Uday prided himself that he was given a position of such power. He worked as an advisor to some very important politicians and used that power to ensure that Sheegards were hated, and that no one ever found out about the Annun race. He looked so much like one; no one could even suspect he didn’t belong among the humans. Annuns were physically superior to humans because of their great running speed and accelerated healing speed. They used their mental superiority to gain positions of political and economic power to manipulate the humans against each other and the Sheegards. When the humans first arrived they had just assumed that the Annuns were just other humans that had come before them. No Annun was going to correct them and give up the opportunity to be a secret force hidden within. It would all be lost if his legs healed deformed. He could feel the small knife he carried in his boot, but there was no way he could reach it with all the roots around his arms.
A fresh breeze came through the trees, cooling the beads of sweat running down Uday’s neck. A bird was singing to its mate in a tree to his left. Life was carrying on in the forest around Uday as he attempted to formulate any possible escape plans. He had no idea when the Sheegard would be back, if ever, and was in no mood to be anyone’s snack today. The roots around his body began to loosen slightly as the minutes passed. It occurred to Uday that the Sheegard’s power over plants needed to be constantly fed or the spell would disintegrate. Blood began to rush into Uday’s fingers again, lighting them on fire. Working with care Uday was able to get his arms free, and reached down to get the blade from his boot. It was only a couple inches long, but it would eventually get him free. Uday began slicing into the fibrous roots around his ankles.
He could feel that the bones in his legs were trying to regrow; time was short. The pain of the bone shards moving through the tendons and muscles of his legs was clouding his mind. Clenching his teeth against the pain, Uday struggled through the last few roots and fell off the tree onto the forest floor. The knife lay off to the side, a mere inch from going into his lungs. Lying crumpled on the ground where he fell, Uday passed in and out of consciousness as the blood returned to his legs and worked on healing the shattered bones. Minutes passed without a hint of movement from his mangled body besides the gentle rise and fall of his breathing.
When the pain lessened and the bones were almost healed, Uday woke to a silent forest. He began to pull himself along the ground, worried about a brother fighting the Sheegards, his legs dragging behind him over the tree roots. Each root sent jolts of pain as it hit the tender new bones but Uday knew he had to keep going. Who knew how many Sheegards had found one of his fellow Annuns. He had to help. He would wipe them out no matter what it took. This time there would be none left to creep back into the dark parts of the woods.
The forest had fallen silent as Arachide crept back to the fallen trees. He clicked softly to himself when he saw Uday dragging himself along the forest floor, trying to escape. “Thought he could get away could he? That won’t do. That won’t do one bit.” He snuck around to the backside of the tree he had lashed Uday to without a sound. He watched as Uday began to crawl faster. He wiped the other Annan’s blood from his hands and face and scanned the ground for a weapon. His own was lodged in the other trespassers spine. His large keen eyes spotted Uday’s small blade glimmering slightly in the faint light beneath the dense foliage. Arachide hummed softly in pleasure at the sight. He dropped gently to the forest floor and picked up the blade. Uday had stopped crawling and was scanning the forest in front of him. Arachide scrambled across the ground and jumped onto Uday’s back, holding the blade to his throat. Uday dropped under the sudden weight but quickly tried to shake off Arachide. The knife dug into his neck, releasing a few droplets of scarlet blood. “Be still.” Arachide hissed.
“Never!” The muscles through Uday’s arms and back were burning as he fought against the weight of the Sheegard. “Get off you repulsive slime.”
“What’s the use of fighting hmmm? Two kills in one day will be fun enough.”
“No! How could you? You’ll pay for that.”
“No. You do.” Arachide said, leaning into Uday’s ear. He tried to buck Arachide off one last time but he stabbed the short blade straight through Uday’s neck into his jugular. Thick blood sprayed onto the leaves beside them. Uday’s body went limp as the blood drained. The leaves above Arachide rustled and a small Sheegard dropped down beside him. It looked much like Arachide, but smaller and with a short silvery coat of fur.
“Is it dead, Patu?” it asked. Her voice was softer with a slight purr to every word. She tried to peer around Arachide to get a closer look but he was blocking the blood with his body.
Arachide wrapped an arm around his daughter and picked her up while stepping away from the dead body. “Yes, Ari. It can’t hurt us anymore.” He swung her onto his back and she nuzzled into his shoulder. He gently scaled a tree and disappeared into the green, with only a slight flash of silver when a ray of sun hit the fur of Ari’s back.
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I am currently studying as an English Writing major at Northern Michigan University.
Labels: Erin Tomlonson